TIFT# 104: Unconscious Emotion: A Deep Dive

tift Jun 04, 2024


Unconscious emotion is of central importance for us. It stands at an epicenter between the mind’s appraisal of circumstances and the responses we want to help our clients change. Not only is unconscious emotion a necessary trigger for action, but it embodies the specifics of both the threat and the protective response. For the first 100 years of professional psychotherapy, unconscious emotion was an idea, a concept invented to describe what Freud and other founders observed. Only recently, neurophysiology has identified it as the firing of a modest group of neurons carrying a message from one limbic structure to others to initiate a specific response.

The challenge is to integrate the new science with what we already know. The conscious experience of emotion is familar to all, so when Freud introduced the notion of unconscious emotion, it was easy to think of it as conscious emotion pushed out of awareness by repression. Today, that neuronal firing can be detected by electrodes and scans, but there is controversy about exactly what it is. Bringing the two points of view together is important because it has implications for understanding change.

The short answer

Every time we see an EMP (entrenched maladaptive pattern), it will have been initiated by a neuronal firing we can call unconscious emotion. So far, it looks like that final activation of nerve cells always takes place in limbic structures such as the amygdala. Knowing this is helpful for us as therapists because it allows us to hold a magnifying glass over the precise point where maladaptive responses are triggered…or not.

Unconscious emotion is the trigger, but the magnifying glass view also takes in the associative logic just before the trigger is pulled. That is where I have posited a final evaluation in which three factors are considered: 1) Is the threat big enough to require a response? 2) What is the best strategy for quieting the unconscious emotion? And 3) Do we have the resources to succeed? When the answers call for action the neurons fire and a response is launched, consisting of some combination from the mind's three groups of products:

  1. Physiological changes including affect
  2. Thoughts, impulses and feelings projected into consciousness
  3. Automatic actions such as involuntary vocalization

 As a reminder, this series of events describes a “negative feedback loop,” a stabilizing system where the output acts to reduce the input that set it off. A home heating system illustrates the concept. When the home gets too warm, the thermostat shuts off the call for heat, and the system stops. That is how the mind deals with potential threats, using unconscious emotion as a proxy for the threat itself. The response is designed to calm or diminish the unconscious emotion. Especially when a threat is existential, the mind tends to stick with the strategy it first used, one based on the resources available at the time.

The long answer

Conscious experience, along with a wealth of clinical observations, tells us there are many different unconscious emotions which, in turn, lead to a vast array of possible responses including the maladaptive ones at the center of our clients’ concerns. Neurophysiologists agree but point out that multiple limbic structure and different neurotransmitters are also involved, many of them less well studied than the amygdala and fear.

The late Jaak Panksepp gives the most accessible account in his book, The Archaeology of Mind. He starts from the point of view that our human limbic systems are very similar to those of other mammals. From there, he makes the assumption that conscious emotion in humans is a reasonably close but more elaborate version of the limbic activation I’m calling unconscious emotion. As emotion is represented consciously, it acquires more associations and further meaning, adding richness to the conscious experience.

Panksepp goes on to identify seven “affective systems,” which he capitalizes as FEAR, PANIC- LUST,  SEEKING, CARE, RAGE/ANGER, PANIC/SADNESS, and PLAY. He goes on to describe the neurophysiology of each, arguing that those patterns of activation correspond to specific conscious emotions in humans and that limbic activations in other mammals correspond to behaviors we naturally identify as representing similar emotions in ourselves. For example, the activation in the amygdala that corresponds to the human experience of fear, when indirectly observed in a dog, will be manifested as shivering and the tail pointing down. To be complete, Panksepp points out that shame, guilt, and pride are “higher level” emotions, not originating in the limbic system, but arising from the cortex and having unclear connections with the limbic system.

What about LeDoux?

Le Doux and other neurophysiologists have expressed two major reservations with regard to Panksepp's version. First, they don’t accept Panksepp’s simple division of the complex physiology into recognizable categories of emotion. LeDoux feels that these divisions are not natural to the structure of the limbic system and that actual stimuli and responses are more complex and difficult to categorize.

The more important objection is that, since unconscious emotion is, by definition, not conscious; we can’t know what it actually “feels like.” Le Doux (2012) puts it thus:  

“We fake it. Introspections from personal subjective experiences tell us that some mental states have a certain ‘feeling’ associated with them and others do not.” 


His point of view is that we are going beyond the evidence when we assume that our conscious feelings reflect what is going on in the limbic systems of humans and other animals. That is intellectually hard to deny, but…

While LeDoux is intellectually correct, that view misses the fundamental characteristic that “the mind is a metaphor engine.” Our ability to use one expression to stand for another is so basic to our mental functioning that, in my view, insisting on denying a relationship between limbic experience and conscious experience seems less accurate than the idea that conscious and unconscious emotion are metaphorically linked.

A solution for us therapists

For clinical purposes, I have largely adopted Panksepp’s version. What that means is that descriptions of unconscious emotion that make sense consciously and resonate with our clients can be taken as metaphors for the neural activation we are calling unconscious emotion. By calling them metaphors, we bypass the unanswerable question of what an unconscious emotion “feels like.” In fact, unconscious emotion doesn’t feel like anything, but it has meaning and that is important. It is highly useful to be able to name a feeling, though it is also clinically important to capture the details. An example would be that a client’s self-effacing behavior is a protective response to early experiences of rageful screaming and criticism from an abusive parent. We are using a metaphor when we describe the unconscious emotion that triggered the response as “fear.” Not only does that make sense, but when the client shares details of the abuse, the recall activates specific circuits in confirmation of the match. This way of thinking fits well with clinical observation and is predictive of healing as well.

For those who might deny that dogs and other non-human mammals have emotions, let’s broaden the discussion to include babies. During the first few months of life, their brains, like those of other mammals are dominated by emotion-based survival systems. When one-year-olds flash those incredibly adorable smiles, what are they feeling? Technically we can’t know because they don’t have words. On the other hand, through empathy, evolution has given us the capacity to relate their responses to our own. We naturally use that ability to “make sense” of what dogs and babies experience. When the dog growls, we wisely back off, based on a metaphorical connection between our own emotions and those we attribute to the animal. The same goes for babies, and there, our "unscientific" identification of the baby’s emotion turns out to have real importance. We respond to the smile or laugh in a way that rewards the baby and gradually shapes her understanding of her conscious feelings. If we didn’t do that, her development would be severely damaged. In this case, metaphorical truth seems more true than scientific truth.

Where LeDoux is right and helpful

In the 2012 article, LeDoux makes a point that is both true and important. LeDoux paints to the unobvious truth that we are more basically emotional beings than rational ones. Since the 18th century, if not longer, we have had a love affair with our capacity for rational thought. From that point of view, the irrationality of humans has been seen as a failure, a deviation from reason. Seeing ourselves as fundamentally rational, scientists puzzled over why we act against our own best interest. 

LeDoux supports the point of view of evolutionary biology in which the human central nervous system is seen as an organ of survival, one that processes information in order to predict opportunities and threats and to mount responses that increase the odds of survival and procreation. He views consciousness and rational thought as enhancements of our basic equipment. This more accepting stance in relation to our limbic self encourages rethinking why we humans so often exhibit EMPs and how a warm and positive attitude towards the limbic mind can enhance our ability to support healthy change.

What are the take-homes?

We do well to trust empathy as a tool for knowing the limbic system. While our knowledge is indirect, our ability to identify unconscious emotion serves us well as humans and as therapists. In addition, we do well to remember that emotions, conscious and unconscious, are complex and varied, arising not only from fear and the amygdala, but from multiple limbic structures. And, finally, this is one place where metaphorical truth may be superior to rationality.

Jeffery Smith MD 


LeDoux, J. (2012). Rethinking the emotional brain. Neuron, 73(4), 653–676. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.02.004

Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012b). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of Human Emotions. W. W. Norton & Company.


Photo credit,  Christopher Bill, Unsplash

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